A Week in the San Juan Islands

A Week in the San Juan Islands

June 2nd, 2010  |  by Marilyn  |  Published in Ship's Log

We’re just back from 8 days of sailing in the San Juan Islands. It was a fantastic voyage, and full of ‘firsts’! Okay, okay, the weather just stunk. Heavy rain, grey skies, 50ish F. What happened to that nice weather of a couple weeks ago? In fact, it was the damp conditions that drove us to leave earlier than planned. We could have stayed another 5 days – but the weather forecasts continue to be just rotten, so we took our chance on the best weather day with the correct tidal conditions and made a run for home.

But let me report day-by-day. I’ll try to be brief because no one really enjoys other people’s vacation stories, though I could gush for hours on this.

Day 1: Departure day (May 24th)

A very busy morning (and preceding day) getting ready to depart. We proposed to leave at 1pm to match the currents, but promised ourselves a 3PM deadline. We let that slip to 4PM. At 3:56pm we cast off and were underway towards Port Townsend. We had a reasonable southeasterly wind behind us, and a strong current up Admiralty Inlet with us. South of Marrowstone island, we were pitched in light air by some big rollers from a passing cargo boat. Crash-bang – a glass broke in the sink. Must be more careful about stowing gear. We reached Marrowstone Point in a quick 2.5 hrs, and then tacked towards Point Wilson and our destination, Fort Warden state park. We flew towards Point Wilson with a SOG of >8 knots (in part due to the strong currents), and when were almost there it finally dawned on us that the mooring buoys at the park were in full force of the wind. Oops! We motored back to Kilisut Bay and Fort Flagler state park, where the mooring buoys were more protected, though still exposed to the southerly fetch between the 2 islands. It was a bouncy night, but our journey had started. Hurrah!

Day 2: Arrival day

We dropped the buoy around 9am, but had to motor sail  in light winds across the bay and shipping channel until about noon. After we rounded Partridge Point, we had a lovely sail in a light southerly through the eastern Strait of Juan de Fuca. This is the most exposed part of the journey, but we were lucky with the weather – it was very pleasant indeed! The winds almost disappeared as we headed up Rosario Strait, past the south end of Lopez Island. The current pushed us faster than the wind. We picked up a mooring buoy on the east side of James Island for the night. Wow! I couldn’t believe we were here! Considering all that has happened in the last few years, I just really couldn’t believe we were sitting by ourselves in our boat, arriving under our own command, in a beautiful little bay just off a small uninhabited island. Wow!

The only downside of this location was its exposure to Rosario Strait and the frequent passing ferries, which gave us a good roll each time. (Note to self – pick an anchorage that’s protected from the ferry wakes.) The sound they make was fascinating below deck, though. On deck, the ferries had their usual low rumble. Below deck, they sounded just like water crashing into metal. Gave us both a scare, before we figured out that the below-deck sound was not our boat somehow sinking.

Day 3: Wind threat and first rain

A regular ritual is to listen to the weather reports. This one predicted 25 knot winds for the next day, so we decided to head for a more protected anchorage to wait out the high winds. The weather was horrible anyway – rain, rain and more rain. And not a lick of wind. We motored through Lopez pass and anchored in the extremely still and protected Hunter Bay. Again, we had the bay to ourselves. It was the first time we anchored Rainshadow rather than pick up a mooring buoy. All went reasonably well. It was nice to have a day of rest and calm after 2 rather bouncy days and nights. Van installed the handheld remote VHF radio in the cockpit, and started work on the fuel polisher. We also discovered that the cheap tygon tubing we used for the maintenance bilge pump had collapsed because the PVC filter at the inlet creates too much back pressure. We shut off the newly installed maintenance bilge pump, and relied on the bigger Rule 2000 to do the pumping if needed until we can get better hose.

Day 4: Swirly thing alert

The big winds didn’t materialize, so we motored up Lopez sound, had lunch on a mooring buoy at Spencer Spit and then motored over to check out the dock at Orcas Island where we hoped to pick up our visiting family on Saturday. Finally, there was a breath of wind so we sailed down Upright channel towards Parks Bay on the SW side of Shaw Island. It was a very nice sail. On the south end of Shaw, we had our first exposure to the heavy currents and swirly rips. Fortunately they were in our favor because the winds were too light to power through. At times, I felt like I was surfing as we were squirted through the rips. (Note to self – watch the currents even more carefully than we already do – we’re having big spring tides!) Arrived at Parks to find two rafted power boats and plenty of room for us. This is another fantastic protected anchorage. We both had a shower, proving that our shower water puppy (pump that drains the shower drain) and new showerhead work great. The boat is getting very damp inside though, and the Tannoy vent in the head seems worthless. Too bad all we have is propane heat, which creates more damp.

Day 5: More Rain

Rain, rain and more rain. Weather radio giving flood warnings on the mainland. We stayed in the bay until mid afternoon. Van worked on the fuel polisher and I cleaned the Tannoy vent screen. We motored over to Friday Harbor to get diesel for the boat, and food for us. This was our first refueling, and my first docking other than our own easy-access slip. Docking is hard, but a miss is as good as a mile, as Van always says. Good thing because I had a couple close calls. Friday Harbor seemed crazy after the days of near solitude. There are float planes landing, ferries arriving and that always threatening Victoria Clipper trying to run you down. Did I mention the huge tidal rips in the channel? VHF channel 16 was filled with chatter of boats calling for assistance. Memorial Day weekend is de facto opening day for boating, so loads of boats were out in the rotten weather, presumably for the first time of the season and things weren’t going so well for some of them. I was glad to get back to our snug Parks Bay, only to find 7 other boats already there. We made some room for ourselves at the head of the bay, and then worried all night about whether we were too close to the rocks.

Day 6: WIND!

We left anchorage before 9am because we were supposed to pick up Doug and Tammy about 11:30 at Orcas Landing. While we were having a gentle sail up Upright passage, we got a call from them – the ferry was down and they couldn’t arrive until 4:40pm. So, we decided to spend the day sailing. Over in East Sound, there didn’t seem to be much wind, and we almost picked up a buoy at Obstruction Point, but then we felt it – Wind! We tacked towards Lopez Sound and discovered real wind and white caps because the wind opposed the current. We had up the genoa and Rainshadow was way, way overpowered. Worried about our older rigging, we decided it very prudent to step down to the jib, and even the 1st reef on the main. This was the biggest wind we had experienced in Rainshadow, and certainly the first time we changed the headsail while underway. (Our previous boat had a roller furler.) It all went reasonably well, and it was exhilarating! Rainshadow handled it extremely well – it was a great learning experience for us to see how changing the sail made such a huge difference in handling. I still found it exhausting though to be at the helm.

We picked up Doug and Tammy on the later schedule (fortunately the wind in Harney Channel was light so docking was not impossible for my novice skills). Then we had a gentle sail up West Sound to the very pleasant Clapp’s Bay for a lovely anchorage. Had a fantastic meal and enjoyed our company. Again, I wished we had not anchored so close to the rocks, but slept reasonably well anyway.

Day 7: A little blue sky, but low wind

Doug had hoped to sail, but that just didn’t really work out. We tried in ghost winds in West Sound and again in Harney Channel, but finally motored over to Obstruction Point for lunch. We did get a little light wind sailing in as we travelled down Upright Channel towards Friday Harbor. Too bad, I know Doug would have the big wind sailing of the previous day (though Tammy wouldn’t have enjoyed it much!)

We dropped Doug and Tammy at Friday Harbor, where they plan to stay for a few days. We motored back to Parks Bay, and found a place to tuck in amongst the other boats. Had a lovely visit from Fred and his son Graham, Shaw island locals, who stopped by to admire our boat. That made our day!

Day 8: The most beautiful day

We decided to have another day of rest. We’re getting very soggy onboard by now. Dumped 10-20 gallons of rainwater out of the dinghy. Van finished the fuel polisher and we started it up. Cool!

Motored over to Friday Harbor to meet Doug and Tammy for a late lunch. There was actually some sun! After a very nice dinner/lunch, we headed back through Upright Channel. Just as the wind died (again), we spotted orca fins! It seemed a mother and calf were making their way down the channel. Very nice!

We motored to Spencer Spit and picked up a buoy on the south side to avoid the ferry roll. There was a light wind from the south, so we were were exposed to the fetch up Lopez Sound, but I think it was better than the ferry roll.  

Sunset was stunning! Decatur Island was cast in the most gorgeous light, and there was a rainbow that had a very faint mirror image from its southern “pot”. It was the most bizarre thing.

Rainshadow tended to sit at an angle to the incoming waves (probably because of some current) which led to annoying wave action (smacking) against the hull, so during the night, we raised the mizzen up to keep our bow pointed into the wind and waves – it seemed to help.

Day 9: The Everything Day

The weather forecast continues to be dire, and a 20-30 knot wind storm is predicted for late tonight and tomorrow. We decided we were soggy enough, and since the currents were in our favor all day, we would make the long run for home. It’s almost 40 NM in a straight line, so we knew we had a long day ahead of us.

At about 9am, we started by motoring down Rosario Strait for 1.5 hours. Finally, in the Straits of Juan de Fuca, we found enough wind for a light air sail. By 2pm, we rounded Partridge Point to discover more wind. Hurrah! Now we were really sailing.

As we made our way towards Point Wilson, the wind just kept increasing. We wisely decided to step down from genoa to jib as soon as we cleared the shipping channel. It was more white-knuckled-at-the-helm for me while we made that crossing, but we did it. As we prepared to change the headsail, while Van was on deck at the mast, I lost it and backed the genoa. We spun wildly, and almost jibed before I could make Van understand he had to come back to the cockpit to bring the genoa across. (My arthritic fingers are practically useless when it comes to handling the sheets). The same thing almost happened again when we did drop the genoa, which meant Van was smothered in backed sailcloth. He said that the scene from LOTR came to mind, where the fellowship is smothered by snow. You know “Gandalf, we must get off the mountain! This will be the death of the hobbits!” Definitely need to rig a downhaul and improve our skills on sail changes. I’m normally pretty good at the helm, but this was big wind and a still somewhat unfamiliar boat. After getting the jib up, we also went for 2 reefs in the main. It was a good move – the wind was probably 20 knots or more and we’re still going on the original 35 year old sails!

We rounded Marrowstone point around 5pm and faced its big tide rip. The wind had dropped some, so we decided to let the reefs out of the main so we had the power to make it through. We were making a good 5 knots through the water and zooming along with the current. Winds to our south at Point-No-Point were being reported at 19 knots, and Admiralty Inlet has a big fetch. Opposing wind and current always makes for a rough ride, and she really gave it to us near the south end of Marrowstone. I’m so glad we had let go those reefs, because we really needed the power to make it through on a port tack. As we exited the rip near the end of Marrowstone, we went through probably 5-10 minutes of just bashing through. We would have been wildly tossed like a toothpick without that power – as it was we were more like a ramming rod crashing through at about 5 knots (though it felt more like a bucking bronco on board). Many waves broke over the bow and one even crashed into our windshield. I’m so thankful for our fully enclosed cockpit – the last thing we needed was to be drenched! The weather was pretty wicked by this time and we were getting very tired after a long day. We beat into the wind until about 7:30pm (fortunately in calmer seas south of Marrowstone though still blowing hard) and finally I suggested a motor sail towards our safe harbor home because our progress into the wind was painfully slow. Remember, the predicted big wind was yet to come that night, we needed to get home. It took another hour, but then we finally docked without drama at about 8:30PM. After a week away, somehow everything looked different. I swear our channel has more markers in different positions!

I trudged the mile home to get the car while Van tidied the boat. It was that gorgeous time before dusk, when the greens are so vivid. The land was beautiful! I was glad to be home, but still wishing the weather had been a little drier so we could have stayed in the islands longer. It was a fantastic first trip and we gained tons of experience without any disasters. We are already looking forward to the next trip!!

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